Adam Sandler hasn't had an easy time at the box office these last couple of years. The one-time king of comedy -- between 2002 and 2008 he had at least one $100-million grosser every year -- has struck out a lot more than he’s made contact.
His would-be “Tootsie” moment in “Jack and Jill” in the fall of 2011 elicited middling commercial results. The porn-comedy “Bucky Larson,” his attempt at producing-only that same year, was a critical and commercial disaster, notching just $2.5 million and a resounding 0% score on Rotten Tomatoes. “That’s My Boy,” Sandler’s big foray into R-rated comedy last summer, was one of the biggest bombs of his two decades as a film actor, tallying just $36 million.
Yet there's been a shining exception in this crop of duds: the "Grown Ups" franchise. At $162 million in total box office receipts, the first film was, amazingly, the second-highest-grossing movie of Sandler’s entire career. And this weekend proved the brand still had plenty in the tank -- the film easily beat out the far more hyped (and expensive) “Pacific Rim” among new openers. At $42.5 million, its numbers put it on track for another $100-million-plus total while marking the second-highest opening in Sandler’s career, not adjusting for inflation.
What is it exactly about “Grown Ups” that proves so appealing?
There's certainly a kind of "Superfriends," stronger-together-than-apart quality to the franchise, which also stars Kevin James, Chris Rock and David Spade.
Outside of Sandler, none of the other actors are current box-office stars. James hasn’t carried a live-action movie to $100 million in nearly five years. Rock hasn’t done it ever. And Spade hasn’t even been played a film lead in nearly a decade.
Somehow, though, their collective presence helps them piece together an audience, either because each of them has a small fan base that adds up to big numbers when put in the same film or because people who would never come out for any of the stars’ individual movies want to see them on screen together.
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But there’s also something more complex going on. The man-child roles these actors have played for so long are, of course, a little unbecoming now since the performers are well into their 40s (at 46, Sandler is the youngest of the lot). Yet “Grown Ups” has found a canny way around that hurdle. By making their characters dads and calling the movie (with none-too-subtle irony) “Grown Ups," Adam Sandler can do his arrested-adolescent Adam Sandler shtick even though he -- and many of his fans -- are old enough to have raised a few arrested-adolescents of their own.
There's perhaps nothing that symbolizes this more than “Grown Up 2’s” savvy ad campaign, particularly its ubiquitous posters showing the four stars in their grinning yearbook-photo phase. They (and you) were kids a long time ago, the poster seems to be saying. But if you come out to this movie, you have the license to see them act like kids again. You can too, for 90 minutes in an air-conditioned theater.
The statistics prove the cross-generational appeal: The audience was pretty evenly split between those over and under the age of 25, Hollywood marketers' cut-off between childhood and adulthood. Critics and discerning moviegoers may roll their eyes at what seems like a fish-in-a-barrel retread (see my colleague Mark Olsen’s excellent review, in which he calls Sandler the “white Tyler Perry”). But as an act of commercial-comedy engineering, it’s brilliant.
After the success of this film, studio Sony Pictures will no doubt want to go back to the well with a third movie. Sandler and the rest of us will continue to get farther and farther removed from being kids. Which means we’ll keep getting more “Grown Ups.”